James B. Comey, former director of the FBI, takes an oath. (Bloomberg News)

It was 1955 — decades before President Trump allegedly sought a loyalty pledge from his soon-to-be-fired FBI director — when political philosopher Howard B. White took on the fraught subject of loyalty oaths in the spring issue of the journal Social Research.

“Let me make it clear that I am not telling other people what to do: how to be heroes, or how to be martyrs, or how to be patriots,” White wrote. “I am trying simply to understand what the loyalty oath means as a political problem for our democracy.”

White was expounding on an issue that has bedeviled the country and is now bedeviling a president. Trump’s statement to former FBI director James B. Comey — “I need loyalty, I expect loyalty” — quickly became an Internet meme. (Search #LoyaltyOath on Twitter.)

Loyalty oaths date back to the Civil War, used by the Union during and after battle. Back then, of course, sedition was real. But loyalty oaths reemerged after World War II as the Cold War took hold and the Soviet Union became a fierce enemy. Though government workers, and even the president, have historically sworn to uphold the Constitution, these loyalty oaths went further in tone and scope.

In 1947, President Harry S. Truman signed Executive Order 9835: “Prescribing Procedures for the Administration of an Employees Loyalty Program in the Executive Branch of the Government.” The order called for investigations to root out “disloyal or subversive” government employees to ensure “unswerving loyalty to the United States government.”

Not long after, California state employees, including university professors, were made to swear they would not overthrow the government. The same went for public housing residents. Students receiving financial aid eventually became targets, angering a young senator from Massachusetts.

“The loyalty oath has no place in a program designed to encourage education,” John F. Kennedy wrote in a letter to an education journal. “It is distasteful, humiliating.”

Trump’s apparent innovation on the loyalty oath is the swearing of allegiance to him personally rather than to the country or the Constitution — “I need … I expect … ”

Whatever the case, loyalty oaths are almost always rooted in paranoia.

“It lets the politicians sleep more easily,” White wrote. “It will all come out all right in the end.” But according to White and other political scientists, they slept better because they were telling themselves a fable, not a true story.

“The loyalty oath is useless,” White wrote. Also, “destructive,” “frivolous” and “fraught with pride and sorrow to so many people.”

Why?

For one thing, the Supreme Court has almost always struck down these laws. For another, ask Kennedy.

“Those who are willing to sign,” he wrote, “are not by that act proven to be either more loyal or more talented than those who do not. Rather, it may act as a cloak behind which disloyalty may be hidden.”

Harold M. Hyman, the man who wrote the book on loyalty oaths — perhaps the only book, published in 1959 — got at the truth of such oaths then and, in another episode of  history repeating itself, now.

Front page of The Washington Post, June 9, 2017.

The oaths and other loyalty tests are, Hyman wrote, “spasmodic rather than continuous” in the course of U.S. history. (See above.)

They are, he argued, “crisis products.” (See the front page of this newspaper.)

What about how they emerge?

“From the felt needs of authorities,” he wrote, “during wars, rebellions, and periods of fear and subversion.”

(That one is best left to the special counsel.)

 

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